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Europe

Bank-bashing French presidential hopeful heads to London

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2012-02-29

Presidential frontrunner François Hollande will visit the UK in February to seek votes from French expatriates, but London will be all ears after the Socialist candidate reportedly “declared war” on the financial district, the City.

Just days after François Hollande’s bank-bashing election manifesto got London's financial district fired up, the presidential frontrunner is planning a 24-hour trip to the heart of the lion's den.

Revealed by British daily The Guardian on Monday, the Socialist Party confirmed the late-February visit when questioned by FRANCE 24, but refused to give further details.

Hollande is probably betting on a rendezvous with British Prime Minister David Cameron and hoping to charm some 400,000 UK-based French nationals, who have historically leaned to the right when choosing their president. But his hosts will be more interested in what Hollande might say about the City, after right-leaning British daily The Times said Hollande’s manifesto had put the UK financial hub "in the firing line".

The Times claimed that Hollande would “tear up” European austerity plans if elected and make the City his main target with increased taxes on bank profits, a ban on banking in tax havens and an end to "toxic" investments and stock options.

London Mayor Boris Johnson joined the tirade, warning the presidential hopeful not to “make a mistake that would damage the UK economy” merely for “short-term political vindictiveness”. The cross-channel tiff made even Nicolas Sarkozy look popular up north, and a trip to London for Hollande very poorly timed.

An important campaign stop

“This trip will provide a convenient stage for Hollande,” says Dominique Moisi, a Paris-based political analyst specialised in international relations. “He needs to prove to the City that when and if he’s elected president, it won’t mean an end to French capitalism”. Nonetheless, Moisi stresses that the visit is primarily a campaign stop. “Sarkozy visited London before his election in 2007, it’s only normal that Hollande is doing the same.”

Hollande is far from eagerly awaited among French expats in London however, who expressed either surprise or bemusement when asked about his visit. “People are talking about it here, but more as a joke,” said one French PhD student living in the northeast part of the capital. Others had not even heard he was coming.

'PARIS-ON-THAMES'

The French government puts the number of French nationals living in the UK (not including Scotland) at between 350,000 and 400,000.

Some 55% of those live in London, which is considered France’s ‘sixth city’ in terms of numbers.

French locals call their adopted capital ‘Paris on Thames’.

London-based academic Philippe Marlière argues that Hollande’s London visit is "above all else hoped to put him on the map because he’s not very well known yet in Britain”. Marlière, who teaches French and European Politics at London College University, says that Hollande is hoping to gain international legitimacy in the UK capital. “He wants to be seen as the next president of France and in order to do that he needs to be taken seriously by the City, the UK business world, and the British media.”

That doesn’t, however, mean he'll be kissing up to the City, Marlière says. “If anything, Hollande will reiterate what he laid out in his manifesto. If he comes to the City he will play to the French audience, and show that he can be critical of the City, which will garner him support back at home among the left wing.”

Cameron willing to make new friends?

Relations between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron reached their lowest point yet in late 2011 when the pair bickered over the eurozone crisis at a November summit. But with Hollande touted to win the French election this spring, speculation is mounting that Cameron will have an even more difficult customer on his hands.

“There’s more talk in the UK regarding this French election than ever before,” FRANCE 24 London correspondent Bénédicte Paviot says. “There is certainly some concern over what effect a Hollande victory would have on relations with the government here”.

Marlière believes that the Cameron government is already preparing to work with Hollande, considering his persistent lead in the polls. “Hollande will not actually be that different from Nicolas Sarkozy,” he argues. “Despite how the UK press tries to portray him, he’s a very moderate and mainstream candidate. A lot of what he says is election talk; he’s not going to go against what has been decided at [an] EU level. Cameron is probably aware of that and ready to get on with him, even if he would prefer, but only very slightly, to work with Sarkozy.”

Date created : 2012-02-01

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